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Columbia Missourian

Japanese dance students at Stephens College prepare for performance

By Molly Harbarger
December 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Sachiyo Ito, center, leads her Japanese dance class in a walking exercise at the Historic Senior Recital Hall at Stephens College. The students will be giving a free performance at the school on Friday.

COLUMBIA — Sixteen pairs of socks danced across the wooden floor, peeking out beneath 16 yukata, a lightweight kimono. The socks pointed and stretched between jazz steps.

But when Sachiyo Ito, whom the students call "sensei," called the class to attention, the white socks with pink heels, the blue anklets, the yellow and blue argyles and the mismatched pink and blue socks all halted, then tucked underneath legs as the students knelt in the Japanese style and bowed until their foreheads touched the floor.

If you go

What: Japanese Classical Dance Lecture Demonstration

When: 12:30 p.m., Friday

Where: Kimball Ballroom inside of Lela Raney Wood Hall, 6 N. College Ave.

Admission: Free

Call: Carol Estey at 876-7211

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These 16 pairs of socks belong to the senior and second-year students Ito teaches at Stephens College. For one semester, she is teaching three classes on traditional Japanese Kabuki and Noh dance. Some of these students will join students from Ito's freshman and nondance major classes to perform on Friday.

Stephens dance students are required to take one world dance class every semester. For eight weeks this fall, students have been learning Japanese dance from Ito, who has been recognized as a cultural ambassador of Japan for spending 40 years teaching Japanese dance in America.

She runs a dance studio based in New York City and her not-for-profit organization Sachiyo Ito and Company provides one-day and one-week workshops across the country.

"I'm hoping they can learn something very new," Ito said. "Not only the dance form but also the culture."

Ito began dancing at age 6 in her birthplace, Tokyo. She earned her teaching certificate at 18 and taught while attending college. At 22, she moved to New York, where she's lived since, except for a trip home once a year. She meets with her own sensei for advice, because, as she told her Stephens students, "Learning dance is a lifelong process."

"I am grateful I have someone criticizing me," Ito said. "The worst thing as a dancer is if your teacher says nothing."

Ito teaches Okinawan dance as well as the more commonly known Kabuki and Noh. Okinawa is an island to the south of mainland Japan, and Ito wrote her dissertation on Okinawan dance and has traveled there several times to study.
Her classes at Stephens focus mainly on Kabuki, a form of theater originating in the 17th century in Japan. In Kabuki, a shamisen player accompanies a vocalist who sings the words to the play in a dynamic, drawn-out voice. Onstage, men act out the story with dramatic gestures and facial expressions that became Kabuki dance.

Noh theater predates Kabuki and is more symbolic, Ito said.

For the seniors in Ito's class, the Japanese style of dance changes the way they think about movement and technique.

Before class, Kirstie McDermott explained that Japanese dance is more artistic and less athletic than the Western styles of dance.

"It's emotional," she said. "It's acting using your expression."

Ito said her greatest challenge of teaching American students is to stop them from "moving around so much." She stressed to her students to be centered and control their movements.

During one piece, they must take large, heavy steps by bringing their knees up to their chests and stomping. Ito stepped in front of the class to demonstrate. She raised her leg perpendicular to her waist with the knee bent a perfect 90 degrees, then kept it that way for at least a minute — perfectly still from the waist down as she twisted to face the class while she explained technical aspects of the movement.

In a dance called "Sakura" about one of Japan's most famous cultural symbols, the cherry blossom, she reprimanded the class for being too stiff. The yukata requires tiny steps, but Ito wanted the movements to flow.

"In Japan, they say it takes 10 years to just walk properly," she said while making the demonstration look easy.

The first thing the students practice is walking. Wearing a yukata or kimono makes walking more difficult because it constricts leg movement, forcing the wearer to take short, deliberate steps, heel to toe, placing one foot directly in front of the other.

As they slowly glided across the room, the dancers' faces got shiny with sweat from the November sunlight pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dance studio. Except for the sound of socks brushing the floor, the room was silent. They then knelt and bowed deeply to the person they call "Ito-sensei," their whole forearm touching the floor.

The students wore practice yukata that are mostly faded blue and white patterns, but everyone will wear new, matching yukata for the performance.

"It's really fun to learn different types of dance," Kelsea Deshazo said. She said that the dance is challenging but that Ito is a patient teacher.

Ito's purpose is to expose people to Japanese dance who might not have seen it or tried it before. Her company in New York didn't have any performances this season, so she thought this was a good opportunity to come to the Midwest. She performed at the Missouri Botanical Gardens' Japanese festival before but otherwise hadn't spent much time in the Midwest.

"It's a fun location to teach in," she said. "It's rare for the Midwest to have contact with Japanese culture."

As part of class, she showed videos of Noh and Kabuki performances and talked about the history and costumes of the theaters. She also teaches her students about Japanese art, culture and aesthetics.

"Dance is not just steps but also learning about life," she said.

She sees dance as a way to share time with others in a "beautiful and spiritual" way.

"Dance is like a flower — as soon as you see dance, it's gone after," Ito said. "It is sudden, but. all the more. it makes the art beautiful."